This Thursday, August 8th (8/8 for good luck of course!), Netflix will release the 10-episode first season of its exciting new original fantasy martial arts series Wu Assassins. Created by John Wirth and Tony Krantz, the show features a predominantly Asian cast, starring Iko Uwais, Byron Mann, Lewis Tan, JuJu Chan, Li Jun Li, Lawrence Kao, and Celia Au. Hong Kong legend Stephen Fung also serves as an Executive Producer on the show and directed the first two episodes. A few years ago, when I was contemplating starting this site, there were two TV projects in development that inspired me to move forward. Interestingly enough, both projects featured primarily Asian casts and took place in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Of course one is Warrior, based on Bruce Lee’s writings, which I’ve covered extensively on this site. The second is Wu Assassins. SOME SMALL SPOILERS BELOW!
Netflix provided an advance look at the first three episodes of Wu Assassins, two of which were directed by Stephen Fung, and I’m confident that the show will be a hit for fans who want to see an Asian-American spin on martial arts fantasy. This review will focus on the first three episodes generally.
EVERYBODY is Kung Fu Fighting – Sorry. I couldn’t help myself. But when you watch the show you’ll see how accurate that statement is. If a show is called “Wu Assassins,” and stars Indonesian martial arts icon Iko Uwais, who also acts as the show’s martial arts choreographer and stunt coordinator, there’s one thing it must do – It has to kick ass. I’m happy to report that the martial arts is excellent. Uwais, who plays Kai Jin, understandably gets the bulk of the action and flexes his considerable skills. I can’t say though that any of Uwais fights in the first three episodes really shines. I’m probably grading him on a very high curve given his resume, and he certainly has some strong fight scenes, but there aren’t any signature moments yet. What I really enjoyed was how the rest of the cast is made up of martial artists who are accomplished in their own right and are given various opportunities to shine. My personal favorite was Li Jun Li, who plays Jenny Wah, a potential love interest for Kai and a successful restauranteur. Wah is a character who is smart, successful and genuinely cares about her family and Kai. I won’t ruin the moment, but suffice it to say that in addition to all those qualities, Wah can also hold her own in a fight. It was refreshing to see that the women in Wu Assassins are just as formidable as the men (which shouldn’t be a surprise given that two of the writers on the show are Shawna and Julie Benson). In addition to Li, Celia Au plays Kai’s mystical mentor (a nice departure from the conventional old wise man master trope), Ying Ying, and JuJu Chan plays Uncle Six’s enforcer, Zan. What’s amazing is that we don’t even get to see Lewis Tan in action in the first three episodes. Clearly the best is yet to come.
Asian-American Culture on Display – For the uninitiated, San Francisco features a fairly unique Asian-American experience. It’s one of the few places where there’s a true Asian-American culture, which includes Asian-Americans blending into all aspects of life in the Bay Area and Asians of various backgrounds blending together. That’s what makes the Bay Area such an ideal setting for shows like Warrior, Always Be My Maybe (also a Netflix original) and Wu Assassins. Wu Assassins not only embraces that unique culture, but makes it a feature of the story. The show makes it clear early on that Iko Uwais’ character Kai Jin is Indonesian-Chinese and that his mother was Indonesian and Muslim. Indeed, there’s a great subtle moment when Katheryn Winnick’s “CG”, is referring to Kai as Chinese, and Kai interrupts her to clarify that he’s in fact Indonesian-Chinese. That distinction is important and authentic and I’m glad that the show’s writers made it a point to include that moment. I have quite a few mixed-Asian friends and it’s important to many of them that both sides of their family heritage are recognized and appreciated.
Lewis Tan and Byron Mann Shine – I genuinely enjoyed the cast as a whole but felt that Lewis Tan and Byron Mann really stood out in every scene they were in. Mann plays Uncle Six, Dragon Head of the Triad, Kai’s adoptive father and one of the legendary Wu Warlords. Tan plays Lu Xin Lee, a childhood friend of Kai’s and one of Uncle Six’s top men. There’s actually an interesting Luke Skywalker (Kai), Darth Vader (Uncle Six), and Han Solo (Lee) dynamic within the show. Not to make it sound like this show is anything like Star Wars, but the archetypes are certainly there. Tan is excellent as a smooth talking bad boy wearing fancy suits and driving exotic cars. It’s cool to see an Asian-American in that kind of role. Mann seems to relish being the primary villain with a devilish smile who kills men at a whim. I should note that Mann himself rocks some sweet suits. Frankly, the two could star in their own GQ spread.
Questionable Subplots – The main plot is essentially Asian-Americans in San Francisco’s Chinatown trying to live their best lives under the shadow of the Triad and Byron Mann’s influence. Of course Mann also happens to be is an ancient Wu Warlord and his adopted son is the “Wu Assassin” destined to kill all the Wu Warlords. To add to those primary storylines, there’s a Scottish ganglord trying to encroach on Mann’s territory in Chinatown and a police force trying to prevent a gang war. For at least the first three episodes, I’m unconvinced that the Scottish gangsters or the police really need to be part of the show. Admittedly, they haven’t been given a whole lot to do thus far. We’ll see how their role plays into the larger storylines in the remaining seven episodes, but for now I’m skeptical.
There’s a little bit of everything in this show and some of it works great and some of it is still a bit shaky. There’s some Avatar: The Last Airbender type mythology, a bit of Star Wars like dynamics, and of course some old-school martial arts themes. The pilot was the weakest episode of the first three, as it struggled to clearly establish the mythology of the show. By the second episode, it became more clear where the show was going and what the motivations of the main characters are. The third episode leaves us with a bit of a cliff hanger and I’m optimistic that the fourth episode will launch the show to another level that will carry us through the finale. Definitely looking forward to seeing more of this show!
Fun sidenote – Netflix hired Higher Brothers and Snoop Dogg to score the theme song for Wu Assassins and you can listen here!
Wu Assassins drops this Thursday, 8/8 only on Netflix!
Rating – 4/5 Pocky
Ron is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of POC Culture. He is a big believer in the power and impact of pop culture and the importance of representation in media.